Goodnight, Sweet Dreams, and a Fitbit ® for You Too

Two Hope psychology professors are hoping their recent research will help parents understand the importance and ways that children should be nestled all snug in their beds. Good sleep is as important as good nutrition in raising happy, healthy kids, but unfortunately, most children are not getting enough shut-eye to allow visions of sugar plums to dance in their heads.

(Photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 77% of preschoolers, who should get 11-12 hours of sleep daily, experience sleep-related disruptive behaviors at least a few nights a week.

Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown and Dr. Andrew Gall, with assistance from 13 Hope students and participation from 73 Holland-area preschoolers and their parents, used novel methodology in a study this past fall to better understand how children’s good (or bad) sleep hygiene affects not only their health and welfare but learning and playing, too.

Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown
Dr. Andrew Gall

Parental sleep journals and wearable exercise technology were their means to gather the study’s sleep data. As parents recorded their preschoolers sleep routines, light/sound exposures at night, and daily socioemotional interactions, a Fitbit ® — worn around the preschoolers’ ankles for 12 weeks — digitally recorded activity patterns during the day and night. Fitbits ® can capture detailed quantitative measurements besides steps and calories burned. They also record sleep onset and offset (including nap times), number of nighttime awakenings, and the amount of time spent awake during the night.

The devices were the perfect fit to help the professors, and eventually parents, understand how good sleep hygiene, and possible necessary interventions, can help preschoolers get the good sleep they need. Good sleep hygiene is defined as consistent bedtimes and morning rising times, and avoiding large meals, caffeine, and light sources (e.g., night lights, smart phones, iPads, computers) before bedtime.

“Honestly, it was just fun working with preschoolers. Since I’m a pretty tall guy, sometimes they got a little bit shy around me, but after one or two (memory) games, they opened up and would tell me all about going sledding with friends or having a friend over to play games.”

“Very few studies have examined sleep patterns in preschoolers in their home environments,” says Gall who specializes in the neuroscience of sleep.

“This project is very close to our hearts,” adds Trent-Brown who specializes in early childhood development. “We’ve both experienced the joys and challenges of parenting preschoolers … We want for other parents to have the opportunity to learn more about their children and themselves.”

Dr. Andrew Gall tests out a Fitbit on his daughter, Stella. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Gall)

Funded by a $32,500 grant from the Caplan Foundation for Early Childhood, the study also involved Hope students who visited two Holland preschools to test the participants on memory performance tasks. Storytelling and missing object recall were two such tasks administered by Bradley Dixon who joined the project early, conducting preparatory work last summer.

“It was an awesome experience as a sophomore to have an opportunity to work in the field,” said Dixon, who is from Kentwood, Michigan. “I’m hoping to eventually work with real patients some day, so this was really a great experience to be able to spend time with people. It helped me understand the difference between learning about psychology in a textbook and applying it in real life.

“Plus, honestly, it was just fun working with preschoolers. Since I’m a pretty tall guy, sometimes they got a little bit shy around me, but after one or two (memory) games, they opened up and would tell me all about going sledding with friends or having a friend over to play games. So that was fun too.”

The professors have plans to write children’s books too about getting good sleep. In doing so, their findings will reach those who are the ones meant to hear the lessons their research uncovered: parents and preschoolers themselves.

Trent-Brown and Gall, as well as their students, will look over the data in the spring semester and reach their conclusions. While scholarly publication of their findings is expected, the professors plan to write children’s books about getting good sleep in order to reach parents and preschoolers themselves.

“We want them to know that sleep matters,” says Trent-Brown. “The Centers for Disease Control calls sleep deprivation in the U.S. a ‘public health epidemic’ because Americans — from all walks of life and across all developmental lifespan periods — aren’t getting the sleep we require and we underestimate its importance and undermine its impact. To use a colloquial phrase, ‘Don’t sleep’ on sleep!”

Finding Meaning in the Storm

Hurricane Matthew has come and gone but not its aftermath. Haiti is a Caribbean country in mourning once again as the death toll and massive material damage accumulated from the great storm. North Carolina too is experiencing much sorrow over lives and property lost due to the flooding left by Matthew. These are the known physical consequences of natural disaster devastation but what of psychological ones? What happens in the minds and psyche of victims who struggle to come to terms with the random nature of nature?

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Dr. Daryl VanTongeren, assistant professor of psychology and Towsley Research Scholar

With $1.8 million in funding from the John Templeton FoundationDr. Daryl Van Tongeren and students from the Hope College Psychology Department, along with colleagues at Wheaton College, Georgia State University and the University of North Texas, seek to understand how survivors find meaning after natural disasters strike, and how those events affect people’s views and relationship with God. They are midway through the three-year study.

Currently, the team is collecting data from recent disastrous events in Louisiana and now North Carolina, but in their first year, Van Tongeren and his Hope students concentrated on questioning participants, in lab studies, about their imagined responses to disaster scenarios in written form.

“If we can somehow find meaning from a horrible event, we’re actually going to be a little bit better off. If we can somehow gain spiritual meaning from it, then the negative mental health effects are diminished.”

Those early studies have found is that when confronted with abstract situations where life is described as lacking meaning — and when confronted with situations where the threat of a natural disaster is emanate, participants recorded less positive attitudes toward God and life in the first scenario. In the second scenario, they did not. Why? Is there something unique and qualitatively different about a natural disaster as opposed to a philosophical argument about why life is meaningless? In other words, why are participants trying to hold onto meaning in a natural disaster scenario when high stress and emotional turmoil are just as prevalent as another negative situation?

An HH-60 Pave Hawk crew conducts search and rescue operations over Galveston, Texas, after Hurricane Ike in 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

Continued research with those who have actually survived natural disasters will hopefully answer these questions more completely in the upcoming year. And although imagining is never a substitute for the real thing, this type of lab work has informed the investigators on ways to research. In fact, this early research via lab work earned Van Tongeren’s Hope students an award at the Midwestern Psychological Association for their presentation of it last May.

Yet, in the meantime, Van Tongeren knows this much thus far, “If we can somehow find meaning from a horrible event, we’re actually going to be a little bit better off. If we can somehow gain spiritual meaning from it, then the negative mental health effects are diminished,” he says.

On the practical level, Van Tongeren and colleagues are trying to help people in these catastrophic situations become as prepared psychologically as they are physically.  In the hours before the storm, or flood, or forest fire, or tornado, what kinds of positive responses should be cultivated preemptively? When this happens, where are support systems? How can people invest back in their communities? Where will they find meaning when meaning can seem lost?

“We’re hoping to contribute to the broader exploration of how we find meaning in suffering,” explains Van Tongeren. “Natural disasters are just one instance in which humans suffer. What can be learned when we are in these trials and tribulations? Our hope is to make a contribution such that when people understand how to make meaning out of the suffering, they can flourish despite it.”

The Joy of Forgiveness

A newly released book featuring the wisdom of two of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders — Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Dalai Lama of Tibet — cites research on forgiveness by Dr. Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet of the Hope College psychology department.

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Published by Penguin Random House, The Book of Joy was released on September 20 and includes a mention of Dr. Charlotte VanOyen Witlviet’s research on forgiveness.

In The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, Tutu and the Dalai Lama begin by discussing obstacles to joy: fear, anger, and adversity. Then, co-author Douglas Abrams, who was present during their unprecedented five-day meeting, weaves in current scientific research to support the eight pillars of joy espoused by the two Nobel Peace Laureates: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. One of the findings of Witvliet’s two-decades-worth of dedication to researching forgiveness and forgiveness practices reveals that while forgiving is a moral response to injustice in a relationship, it also has beneficial emotional and physiological side effects for the forgiver. It is this revelation — first discovered by Witvliet and co-investigators Dr. Thomas Ludwig, professor of psychology, and Kelly Chamberlain ’01 Port 15 years ago — that makes its appearance in The Book of Joy.

…Witvliet’s two-decades-worth of dedication to researching forgiveness and forgiveness practices reveals that while forgiving is a moral response to injustice in a relationship, it also has beneficial emotional and physiological side effects for the forgiver.

In that study, Witvliet and her team looked at forgiving and unforgiving responses to being wronged or hurt. First, she asked people in the study to think about someone in their autobiographical past who had mistreated or offended them in a way that still hurt them. Then, in the midst of their rumination about the hurt, Witvliet monitored their heart rate, facial muscles, and sweat glands.

What she found when people remembered and harbored their grudges was that they physiologically responded with fight-or-flight mechanisms — their heart rates increased, their blood pressures went up, they sweated more. Their facial musculature also showed signs of anger and sadness. This all makes sense, of course.

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Dr. Charlotte VanOyen Witvliet, professor of psychology and chairperson of the department

But Witvliet did not stop there. She then asked people in the study to imagine bestowing empathy and an understanding of their offenders’ need for transformation. In short, she asked them to begin to forgive their offenders by developing even small ways to genuinely show mercy, compassion and goodwill. And in trial after trial, Witvliet found a very clear and clean story: When people engage in the moral response of actual, sincere forgiveness, their bodies respond with heart rates, blood pressures and sweat responses that return to normal.

“And while we recognize that forgiving is not relaxing,” says Witvliet, “compared to its unforgiving alternative, forgiveness evokes calmer responses during the imagery and also during the recovery period.”

“What we have been really trying to do in our work is not just restrain and push down the negative but also cultivate approaches people can take to remember the personhood of the offender, to see the wrongdoing as evidence of his or her need to be transformed, and to genuinely desire that good change in them. It is these responses that actually generate positivity and joy.” — Dr. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet

But for lasting benefits, Witvliet is quick to say that the goal of these findings goes beyond the lab. “From this, I don’t construe forgiving as what can I get out of this situation,” she says, clamping her hand over her heart, “but it’s really a generous gift of mercy and level-headed, eyes-wide-open compassion.

“Too often when we start to think about forgiving someone, we think, ‘We can’t be mean, we can’t be nasty, we can’t be bitter, we can’t be hostile, we can’t be this, and we can’t say that. We can’t, we can’t,’” she continues to explain. “Well, we can turn off that negative spigot in the short term through suppression and restraint, but our studies show over and over again, that that alone does not generate anything positive or pro-social and it does not activate empathy or forgiveness. Instead we must root out resentment by cultivating a long-term sustainable alternative.”

And what is that exactly? Well, Witvliet likes to use a garden metaphor to explain. Think of pulling a weed in a garden, a thorny weed of resentment. We can dig it up but that does not mean it won’t sprout back again. So, Witvliet says we must refine the garden’s soil over and over again by planting others things like truth and justice, compassion and mercy that can crowd the weeds of un-forgiveness and bitterness, creating a more beautiful garden because forgiveness is variegated. It grows best with continual care and a readiness to get our trowels out.

Whether from the Dalai Lama’s basic Buddhist principles or Tutu’s belief in Jesus’s commands to love our enemies, a theological clarity and message abides from these octogenarians. Forgiveness, for all of its difficulty and hard work they say, is just the right thing to do.

“What we have been really trying to do in our work is not just restrain and push down the negative but also cultivate approaches people can take to remember the personhood of the offender, to see the wrongdoing as evidence of his or her need to be transformed, and to genuinely desire that good change in them. It is these responses that actually generate positivity and joy,” continues Witvliet.

And that brings us back around to Tutu and the Dalai Lama and The Book Of Joy. These two religious leaders have experienced numerous hardships, oppressions and reasons to forgive in their lifetimes, yet they are two of the most joyful souls who walk amongst us. Whether from basic Buddhist principles or the belief in Jesus’s commands to love our enemies, a theological clarity and message abides from these octogenarians. Forgiveness, for all of its difficulty and hard work, they say, is just the right thing to do to lead a joyful life.

Flint Water Crisis in the Round

This past Monday night in Maas Auditorium, 13 bottles of water sat on a long table, each provided for one of the 13 people preparing to speak on an interdisciplinary panel about the Flint water crisis. One container of water, though, was not being consumed, nor would it be. Displayed at the center of the dais, a mason jar filled with water from Flint, Michigan, looking as benign and similar as the water in the other 13 bottles, was about to be examined from political, sociological, psychological, historical, scientific, artistic, ethical, and personal perspectives. Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

IMG_2537Organized and implemented by Dr. Julie Kipp’s women’s and gender studies keystone class, the event gave an opportunity for a large audience to consider what has happened in Flint as well as providing a challenge for all to get involved and do something appropriate within their discipline or interest. The panel, made up of one student, 11 professors, and one president, discussed the very tragic, sometimes complex, and always upsetting issues revolving around the high levels of lead in Flint water and those who drank that water for over a year. Delivering their expertise from their various points of view within a five-minute time limit each, the panel continued to cast light upon light upon light onto a problem that has fallen out of the nation’s glare… for the time being anyway. This communal time of reflection also gave hope for understanding next steps in Flint.

“When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

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Katlyn Koegel, far left, speaks as part of the 13-member Flint Water Crisis panel.

Speaking from personal experience, sophomore Katlyn Koegel, a Flint native, shared several stories about people she knows from home who are struggling and afraid—a small, thirsty boy who asked for bottled water from her last summer, a woman who may lose her business due negative media attention that has driven customers away, and a pastor who paid a $900 bill for water he was not even using. “What has been most heartbreaking for me is this dichotomy between breaking news and broken structures,” said Koegel. “A lot of facts and individual stories have gone down a chasm between the two.”

Historically speaking, Dr. Fred Johnson, declared that Flint has its proud roots in Native American origins and the founding of a General Motors plant there in 1908. “And many of you may know, it was the site of the 1936-37 GM sit-down strike which basically brought the UAW (United Auto Workers) to prominence, making it a major instrument in the labor movement.” Now, the city’s heritage is  being viewed only through a microscope created by this recent history.

“All politics are local.”

Politically speaking, Dr. Annie Dandavati, reminded the audience that “it’s important for all of us to be educated voters. Even though we sometimes feel that our voices are falling on deaf ears, it’s important to know about issues no matter where they originate—in the state capitol, nationally or globally. All politics are local.”

Sociologically speaking, Dr. Aaron Franken and Dr. Debra Swanson showed that race and socio-economic status are key to making sense of what is happening in Flint. “When looking at kids in Flint, here’s some points that are important and highlight social processes for health: One, if socio-economic status is linked to health, and two, decreased educational attainment is a key link to lower socio-economic status, and three, lead poisoning manifests itself in behavioral changes and in cognitive ability changes and thus a link to decreased educational attainment, and, four, sizable portions of residents (in Flint) don’t leave the area – so residential non-migration – then we’re going to have a potential geographic health issue with a very long memory in Flint,” said Franzen.

“This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention.”

In 2013, the median household income in Flint was about half of that than in the rest of the state. The state median income is $43,000; in Flint it is about $23,000. Approximately 22% have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Forty-one percent of those living in Flint are below the poverty line, 56% of the population is black, and 75% of the households are single-parent homes. “This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention,” says Swanson. And yet those women have organized protests at the state capitol in Lansing as well as a movement with Lead Safe America Foundation, bringing attention to the crisis on Twitter with over three million tweets in two hours on February 4, using the hashtag, #StandWithFlint.

Psychologically speaking, Dr. Carrie Bredow offered one good news/bad news scenario: “We know that certain things can ameliorate some of the effects of lead poisoning (such as behavioral and cognitive disorders) though it’s not reversible. But based on the research, through things like good nutrition, having high-quality early childhood education and intervention, and consistent medical care, the level of its effects can be influenced. But these are the same things that children in Flint don’t have access to. So this is something that needs to be poured into in terms of how we stop this from affecting people in Flint inter-generationally.”

Scientifically speaking, Dr. Joanne Stewart and Dr. Graham Peaslee explained how lead got into the Flint water supply in the first place. “When they switched from (using) Lake Huron water to Flint River water (to save the city money), they had no corrosion plan in place (to keep the pipes from leeching lead into the water). That was one of the real shocking things that happened,” said Stewart. “It depends on which house you’re in (when looking at lead levels),” added Peaslee. “Some people have PVC pipes and no lead, others have lead and more lead in their pipes. It depends house to house what the effect was.”

“It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Morally speaking, Dr. Heidi Giannini enlightened with this: “One thing I think the Flint water crisis illustrates and what our response to it should bear in mind is that it is very hard to be good. However, that is no excuse for failing. The crisis in Flint illustrates at least one way it is hard to be good: we form bad habits (like laziness or self-interest) because most of the time they seem like they are not that big of a deal. When we foster these ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad habits, we foster the opportunity for great evil. We like to think that there is extraordinary vice underlying the horrible moral wrongs of what happened in Flint. It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Dr. Charles Green addressed environmental racism, citing evidence that shows more middle-class black families live in polluted areas than poor white families do. “Let me be clear: race is a real factor here… Black kids are three times more likely than white kids to have asthma (due to living in areas with poor air quality) and four times more likely to die from it. The environmental problems that we have addressed in this country over the last 30-40 years have largely benefitting the white population, and the environmental problems we have not addressed have largely impacted people of color.”

“We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.”

From an artistic standpoint, Rob Kenagy and Dr. Katherine Sullivan revealed how art and activism is giving people a news lens through which to view Flint. “The slam poetry coming out of Flint is hot…It’s important to remember that that art is made by real people,” said Kenagy, “and it’s just not something you can click past. There is a real voice behind it. We as readers have a responsibility (to hear it and see it), especially those of us from privileged spaces. We have to actually accept the trauma and invite it into our lives. We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.” Poetry and art is yet another way to do just that.

Finally, President John Knapp summed up the event this way: “Big problems don’t lend themselves to simple, small solutions. What I’ve really appreciated about this evening as I’ve listened to my colleagues here is that we’ve not only examined this problem from the perspective of art, philosophy, poetry, but also sociology, history, and political science. We’ve talked about biological and medical concerns; we’ve talked about psychological matters and even got into chemistry. Every one of those is important, and more, to really understand the nature of the problem. And what I’ve described is what we are about in the liberal arts at Hope. When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

David Myers on Gratitude and Happiness

14334024732_9d360faf68_bIn this season of giving thanks, we’ll sit down for a day and express appreciation for all we have and for whom we love. Our sentiments of gratitude will be sincere. We are grateful, maybe even content, and we mean it. Then we’ll see the Black Friday bargain flyers in the Thanksgiving Day newspaper, weighing about five pounds more than average, and the contented feeling flees. “What is on sale? How much can we save? How much can we get?”

The real question we should ask though, posits Dr. David Myers, professor of psychology, is this: how much is enough? It’s a hard question to ask and even harder to answer in this age and country of plenty, yet everything he knows from his research and his personal life tells him the best things in life aren’t things.

Dr. Myers has been called Hope’s happiness guru, not only for his writings on the topic, but also for his ever optimistic, ever smiling, ever encouraging disposition. You would be hard-pressed to find someone happier.

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Dr. David Myers, professor of psychology and an esteemed Fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science

And just this week, he is also Hope’s newly elected fellow of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Myers was chosen for this honor for distinguished contributions to the field of social psychology and communication of psychological science to students and the public. His highly successful textbooks and nine other books on topics ranging from intuition to hearing loss to happiness have educated millions in classrooms and for personal inquiry. His hundreds of presentations and articles on his expertise evidences a man who finds much of his happiness in what he does.

“Surprised and appreciative,” Dr. Myers says of his reaction to the revelation of this newest honor.

“And if there is one virtue I believe I am capable of, it is gratitude.  I’m overwhelmed by gratitude for so many wonderful people whom I love and admire because it is these brilliant people who bring passion and commitment to enable us to teach psychology to so many,” he says, referring to his editorial and local support team. “I am the quarterback of that team, and, yes, the books wouldn’t get written without me. But a team of world-class editors surrounds and guides me and enables people like me to seem better than we are.”

Add self-deprecating humility to Myers’ gratitude attitude, as well.

But what of the rest of us? Where do we find our happy place? If the secret to happiness is not found in the material world, how would Dr. Myers tell us to seek happiness and gratitude in this time of year when we especially seek to express both?

Here are the top 10 ways to be a happier, more grateful celebrator of the holidays (and life) ahead, digested below in Dr. Myers’ own words from his book, The Pursuit of Happiness:

  1. Realize that enduring happiness does not come from success. People adapt to changing circumstances—even to wealth or a disability. Thus, wealth is like health; its utter absence breeds misery but having it doesn’t guarantee happiness.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal. Those who pause everyday to reflect on some positive aspect of their lives (health, friends, family, freedom, education, natural surroundings) experience heightened well-being by counting their blessings.
  3. Act happy. We can sometimes act ourselves into a happier frame of mind. Manipulated into a smiling expression, people feel happier; when they scowl, the whole world scowls back. So put on a happy face. Going through the motions can trigger the emotions.
  4. Give priority to close relationships. Intimate friendships with those who care deeply about you can help you weather difficult times. Confiding is good for the soul and body. Resolve to nurture your closest relationships by not taking your loved ones for granted.
  5. Focus beyond yourself. Reach out to those in need. Happiness increases helpfulness (those who feel good do good). But doing good also makes one feel good and grateful.
  6. Nurture your spiritual self. For many people, faith provides a support community, a reason to focus beyond self, a sense of purpose and hope.
  7. Take control of your time. Happy people feel in control of their lives. To master your use of time, set goals and break them into daily aims. Although we often overestimate how much we will accomplish in any given day (leaving us frustrated), we generally underestimate how much can accomplish in a given year, given just a little progress every day.
  8. Seek work and leisure that engages your skills. Happy people are in a zone called “flow”—absorbed in tasks that challenge but don’t overwhelm them. The most expensive forms of leisure (sitting on a yacht) often provide less flow experience than gardening, socializing, or craft work.
  9. Join the “movement” movement.  An avalanche of research reveals that aerobic exercise can relieve mild depression and anxiety as it promotes health and energy. Sound minds reside in sound bodies. Off your duffs, couch potatoes.
  10. Give your body the rest it wants. Sleep deprivation, with its resulting fatigue, diminishes alertness and leads to gloomy moods. So, get some z’s.